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Television & Radio

TV shows that were 'Brilliant, but Canceled'

Trio, a cable channel devoted to arts, next month will show series that appealed more to critics than viewers.

November 30, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

With the winter forecast calling for the traditional flurry of midseason shows in January, next month provides a timely reminder of television's most maddening conundrum -- namely, how pressure to amass the widest possible audience so often prevents TV's cream from rising to the top.

Trio, a cable channel devoted to the arts, explores this dynamic with "Brilliant, but Canceled," a festival of flops that includes a two-hour documentary by the same name Dec. 8. The schedule gets underway Monday at 4 and 7 p.m. with the short-lived "East Side/West Side," to be followed through the month by series -- among them "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," "The Ernie Kovacs Show," "Now and Again," "United States" and "Profit" -- that were hailed by critics but failed in the ratings.

For Trio, acquiring shows that few people watched in the first place amounts to an inexpensive no-brainer. After all, TV stations and cable channels jockey for after-network rights to "Friends" and "CSI," not "Action" and the short-lived anthology "Gun."

There's also something appropriate about a network available in only about a sixth of U.S. homes paying tribute to programs that went largely unseen -- perhaps the inevitable result of a 200-channel universe, creating shelf space even for discontinued products.

Still, the idea of dedicating a month to canceled shows raises intriguing questions, perhaps foremost among them whether some series are, as the documentary proposes, simply "too smart, too edgy or too hip for TV."

"It's a tension between television -- implicitly a mass medium -- and good work," noted Trio President Lauren Zalaznick, who said the "Brilliant, but Canceled" concept could become a recurring event or even a regular franchise.

Television's history is certainly littered with laudable programs that died prematurely. The special, in fact, offers a depressing parade of shows that tested boundaries and challenged conventions -- from "Twin Peaks" to "My So-Called Life," "Buffalo Bill" and "Freaks and Geeks" -- a quartet that didn't last half as long, put together, as "America's Funniest Home Videos."

"I wish I could say that the best shows I've done are the ones that were most successful. It's just not true," Ian Sander, a producer on NBC's short-lived gem "I'll Fly Away," concedes in the program.

This examination of how TV treats its best material also comes at a time when the relationship between fans and television is changing -- not in the sense that people suddenly become attached to shows that don't endure (they always have), but because the Internet has created an outlet for them to mobilize and share their passion and frustration.

The one problem with this democratic exercise is that it's easy for "save our show" organizers to lose sight of the fact that a few thousand disgruntled folks with laptops do not a hit make, and that artistic merit notwithstanding, as former CBS programming chief Michael Dann flatly states, "there's no such thing as a successful show with poor ratings."

Indeed, in his interview, veteran manager-producer Bernie Brillstein calls campaigns on behalf of low-rated series "a waste of time," an assertion unlikely to be embraced by zealots pining for series such as the Sci-Fi Channel's "Farscape."

Yet the truth is that since "Cagney & Lacey" made its Lazarus-like return from cancellation in 1984, it's hard to remember a case where fan reaction significantly swayed network lightning-seekers facing the dilemma of a quality series that just won't spark commercially. As Brillstein asks sympathetically, "How do you know how long it takes for the public to get used to something?"

A show's demise frequently comes down to factors beyond its control, from bad timing to bad time periods. Consider NBC's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," which mined some of the same terrain as "Sex and the City" in the late 1980s but in hindsight was probably more suited to the less demanding environs of pay cable.

"My So-Called Life," by contrast, had the misfortune to premiere in 1994 opposite "Mad About You" and another program that made its debut that year, "Friends." The drama starring Claire Danes drew only marginal ratings, but ABC still hasn't been able to match its modest audience in that hour since dropping it.Fans have grown more technically savvy about lobbying for shows than they were in "Cagney's" day, raising money to place ads and bombarding network officials with e-mails. Even if these efforts do little more than line the pockets of a billboard company or Hollywood trade paper, for some the sense of community fostered becomes an end in itself.

Producers and actors connected to ill-fated programs, meanwhile, sound more resigned to the idea that in television, longevity is not always based on merit.

Dabney Coleman, who starred in the pretty brilliant and very canceled "Buffalo Bill" and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," speaks to this mind-set by telling his interviewer that the more intelligent a person is, "the less you watch television. That's just a fact."

In that respect, Trio, the Internet and local events like Un-cabaret's "The Other Network" -- a weekly showcase of unaired TV prototypes, introduced by their creators -- at least offer producers the consolation of knowing that some people found their network-rejected babies to be beautiful. They also forge bonds among fans and demonstrate that there are intelligent people out there who take their quality television very, very seriously.

Admittedly, such minor victories don't pay the rent, but it's always nice to have your brilliance recognized, even if it doesn't make you any less canceled.

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